Wrapping up a previously-unfinished entry from last year, Max writes at length about his all-time favorite super hero, the original Captain Marvel, formerly of Fawcett Comics in the Golden Age now known as Shazam and a mainstay at DC Comics. Max recounts his personal history with the hero and discusses Shazam’s DC New 52 debut, Shazam Vol. 1: The Curse of Shazam! and why it is must-buy reading. Plus, a look at a website that every comics fan should know about!
Super-Fly Comics & Games’ plucky sidekick Max Lake has embarked on a journey to read his collection of comics! Join Max every chance he gets as he takes on his Library! Titles reviewed by this blog do not necessarily reflect what the store has in stock, but you can always email the store to special order something that you’ve seen here at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call Super-Fly at (937) 767-1445 or just ask someone at the store next time you’re there for special orders. You can read past entries of the blog here. Any questions or comments for Max should be sent to email@example.com or feel free to comment in the comments section below. Check out @maxdlake to follow Max on Twitter. Most entries deal with Max re-capping what he’s read in detail, so be aware that there is a SPOILER WARNING for this and all entries, though Max usually leaves out the big spoilers/shockers/moments and leaves those for the reader to discover. The things Max writes do not necessarily reflect the views of Super-Fly Comics & Games, and Super-Fly Comics & Games is not responsible for what Max says—especially anything that bugs you.
Hello again! As I’ve said recently, it’s been awhile since I’ve done a blog entry, or much of any writing lately. However, while I was unable to complete any entries for months, I was able to write a few unfinished entries, including this one, which I have now finished. It was started in Fall 2013 and was wrapped up very early in 2014. When it was written, I had several irons in the fire, some good some bad, and a healthy dose of writers’ block tying me up. However, I had been doing plenty of comics reading. I was on a couple tracks. One was a mission to read all of DC’s mystical/magical heroes, starting with Deadman. After acquiring Deadman Vol. 3 trade paperback, I took time to read sit down and real all three recently released TPBs of Deadman, and then continued to the TPB of later material Deadman Lost Souls which collects two prestige format series. I followed this up with the Showcase Presents Phantom Stranger Volumes 1 & 2, which were black & white collections, but chock full of Phantom Stranger-y goodness. The obscure (and annoying) character Doctor Thirteen (later 13) pops up a lot in the Phantom Stranger volumes, which led me to read the Doctor 13 TPB by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang—a nice collaboration they did before the New 52 Wonder Woman, which is one of my very favorite comics of the New 52. From there I went on to Jack Kirby’s The Demon collection, and planned to follow it up with the New 52 Demon Knights…but got stuck on Kirby. As awesome as that Kirby art is, The Demon is not easy breezy reading (all that rhyming!). I took notes on many of these, so hopefully there will be entries sometime of the Deadman stuff at least. Doctor 13 is so fun, I may have to do an entry on it just so I have an excuse to re-read it.
Luckily that wasn’t the only comics mission I was on. I also wanted to attempt to read as much of the Captain Marvel/SHAZAM character as possible prior to the release of the New 52 Shazam! Volume 1 HC in September (2013). I have all of the Shazam! Archive Edtions Vols. 1-4 as well as the Shazam! Family Archives Vol. 1 which I have read before and breezed through them again with glee. It would be really great if DC would release more Archive Editions of Shazam, especially with the Shazam revival in the New 52. But luckily fans don’t have to wait. I have found an invaluable resource for comic book fans everywhere in a website called Comic Book Plus at www.comicbookplus.com –truly a wonder to behold. At this site you can read and download LEGALLY and for FREE several Golden and Silver Age public domain characters, including the original Captain Marvel (Shazam) and the original Marvel (now Shazam) Family published by Fawcett! Not just the Marvels too, all the Fawcett heroes you may have heard of are here: Ibis the Invincible, Bulletman & Bulletgirl, Spy Smasher, Minuteman, or Mr. Scarlet & Pinky and some you may not have heard of like Commando Yank, Phantom Eagle, Golden Arrow, Captain Video and just emerging from obscurity and now starring in his own Dark Horse series, Captain Midnight! Almost all of their adventures can be read on the site’s online viewer, or if you create a forum account, downloaded at one every two minutes.
There’s much more, including Quality’s Golden Age stuff like Plastic Man, Uncle Sam, The Ray, and the Black Condor; Nedor/Better’s heroes like Pyroman, Fighting Yank and Black Terror; some of Charlton’s Silver Age stuff including both Dan Garret and Ted Kord Blue Beetles, Captain Atom and others. As an aside, although I recommend DC’s The Action Heroes Archives Vols. 1 & 2 for excellent print hardcovers of the Charlton stuff which I have reviewed in several itty bitty teeny tiny chunks—there’s stuff DC didn’t print in them that can be found at comicbookplus.com like Judomaster and Peacemaker. Also on the site are lots of non-superhero comics: Crime, Horror, Romance, Funny Animals, you name it and on top of all that, some pulps too! And there’s no need to fear because it is all legal and in the public domain. I don’t feel bad talking about them here to you all either—Super-Fly really doesn’t have a lot of Golden Age stuff. To find some of these print issues could cost hundreds of dollars, so comicbookplus.com is really a site worth checking out. Now don’t get me wrong folks, if someone offered a series of reprints as Archive Editions of these obscure Golden & Silver Age heroes, I’d be the first in line to buy them! (Remember gang, I’m the one rallying for more Charlton reprints in an “Action Heroes Archive Edition Vol. 3” and was bummed DC canned their planned Captain Comet Archive Edition!) While DC and Marvel have done a lot to cover their back catalog, there are still big holes to be filled. I’ve found some hope with Dark Horse Archives and their impressive archive back catalog of characters both big and small that fall outside of “the Big Two”—and I’ll be writing about a couple of Dark Horse TPB Archives coming up soon. Also, I gain hope from seeing in Previews recently that Roy Thomas is publishing his own line of comics archives, including obscure characters such as Phantom Lady! But yeah, for the most part, a lot of what you’ll find on the Comic Book Plus website is largely unpublished, so I don’t feel bad pointing it out. It’s a resource every comic fan should know about!
So thanks to Comic Book Plus, I’ve been spending a lot of time there picking up Captain Marvel’s adventures where the DC Archive Editions leave off. I’ve also jumped ahead, to see first appearances of characters like Talky Tawny or Freckles Marvel. Simply put, it’s some of the best comics the Golden Age have to offer. Despite Captain Marvel being an obvious imitation of Superman—so much so that it caused him to go out of print after DC sued —the World’s Mightiest Mortal (a moniker for Cap) was so much different than the Man of Steel. His adventures were lighthearted and became increasingly so over the years. What made Captain Marvel different is that instead of a normal civilian identity, he was really just a boy named Billy Batson who could transform into Captain Marvel by saying the word “Shazam!” The adventures were great fun, especially as the roster increased to include members of the Marvel Family and enemies such as Dr. Sivana, the super intelligent worm Mr. Mind, Ibac and Black Adam, and friends such as Talky Tawny, who was a civilized talking tiger(!) and Uncle Dudley, who would pretend to have super powers and dress up as “Uncle Marvel.” Unfortunately, all the fun came to an end in the early 1950s, specifically in 1953 when DC won their appeal against a lawsuit ruling in favor of Fawcett for copyright infringement, setting the stage for DC to sue Fawcett once again for supposedly stealing from them, causing Fawcett to avoid the lawsuit altogether by shuttering their comics business seemingly putting Captain Marvel in limbo forever.
Then in the 1970s, DC licensed the rights to Captain Marvel from Fawcett and wanted to publish a new Captain Marvel comic book. The only problem was that Marvel Comics had bought the trademark to the name “Captain Marvel” while the original Captain Marvel was in publishing limbo. Thinking quickly, DC named the book “With One Magic Word… SHAZAM!” and the character was back in the limelight again. While the book’s sales weren’t great at first, Denny O’Neil worked on the book early on writing scripts, and so did Captain Marvel’s co-creator artist C.C. Beck. Then a SHAZAM! live action show hit the airwaves and the book’s popularity increased a bit, creating a whole new generation of Captain Marvel fans. Some of this fandom lingered, and in 1981, a cartoon emerged called The Shazam Kids Power Hour which featured Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family. The cartoon is how I first encountered the character, at all of four years of age, and I LOVED it! I barely even remember caring about the other half of the “Power Hour,” a show called Hero High which starred a bunch of fourth rate super heroes like guys named Captain California… Phooey! Since I’ve grown up, I’ve only seen the Shazam cartoons available as bootlegs at conventions, so it’s high time Warner Bros Home Video releases these cartoons officially on DVD! I’m hoping they do right and release it by next year in time for Captain Marvel’s 75th anniversary. (Meanwhile, Hero High has seen a full DVD release, so what gives?!?)
Back when I was a kid, the Shazam! cartoon was so fantastic to me (even though I have recently found out that there were only twelve episodes!), and I eagerly wanted to get Marvel Family toys…toys that didn’t exist back then, but I held out hope. I remember an early memory of my older sisters promising me new toys would be coming my way the next day (was it my birthday? Christmas? I can’t remember) and I asked if it was “a Marvel set.” To my astonishment my sister said “Yes!” I was thrilled! However, the next day when I opened said presents, I found it was a set of toy vehicles all decked out with Spider-Man logos and styling, including a Spider-Man that rode a motorbike, a Spider-Car and a Spider Helicopter. Now don’t get me wrong, these were amazing presents to be had…But I was still disappointed. Yet my sister hadn’t lied; this was a “Marvel” set. A Marvel Comics set though, not a Marvel Family set. Something was wrong somehow.
DC Comics has known it all along, and while they have done many revivals of the character over the years, most notably Jerry Ordway’s Power of Shazam! graphic novel (which is quite good) and subsequent ongoing series, the character still struggled with this name issue. In recent years, DC has taken to calling whatever incarnation of the character “Shazam” instead of Captain Marvel, and that is now a permanent change in the New 52. Whatever he’s been called, Captain Marvel/Shazam hasn’t really gelled or caught on in a big way in this modern age of comics. It hasn’t helped that in some of the attempts to revive him or have him change in the light of “Big Events” have almost run the franchise into the ground, including things like the mantle of Captain Marvel/Shazam being taken away from Billy Batson, to Mary Marvel being possessed by Darkseid’s torturer Desaad and taking on a radical look that even a street walking punk rock prostitute would question. Yet Captain Marvel/Shazam and the Marvel Family have always had fans, strong supporters who have wanted a proper return to greatness to this character for years.
Now that time has come. Creators extraordinaire Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, who were behind the unique Batman Earth One have delivered a worthy new beginning to the franchise that simultaneously honors the old and promotes new aspects of the legend. They do all of this in the hardcover (and just solicited for trade paperback) Shazam Vol. 1: The Curse of Shazam! which was taken from the backups of the New 52 Justice League comic. The hardcover tells the whole story of how Billy Batson, a young orphan, finds his family and becomes the hero of magic, Shazam. The book opens with the story of how people are being “magically abducted” and then evaluated by an unknown presence before each one is universally rejected and returned to wherever they were abducted from. It’s not happening unnoticed however, as one Doctor Sivana (is it too much to hope his whole name is still Doctor Thaddeus Boddog Sivana?) has learned of these abductions and is tracing them, trying to learn the secret of the magic in an effort to save his family—who are off panel the entire book, so we can all only hope he’s talking about the WHOLE family of Beautia, Magnificus, Sivana Jr. and Georgia (who all were seen last in DC’s mega event 52, prior to DC’s New 52). One interesting aspect of the new Dr. Sivana is that actually believable he could be the dad of Beautia and Magnificus as he’s cut! Tall, dark and strong, this is not your granddad’s Dr. Sivana! This annoyed me a little at first, but made it more interesting as he was a potential physical match for Shazam…
Meanwhile, Billy Batson is an orphan who seems like the sweet kid comics readers have always known him as when readers meet him at the outset of the story, as he is being interviewed by a prospect foster family, Mr. and Mrs. Vasquez. They tell Billy they have children similar to his age, and at his suggestion, offer him cocoa for when he arrives at their home. But as soon as these new foster parents-to-be leave and are out of earshot, Billy Batson turns out to be a jerk and calls these foster parents “Idiots!” This was totally off putting to me when I read it for the first time as part of the first Shazam! backup in Justice League. I mean, Billy always had a good heart right? Apparently not here…Just like Sivana being completely contrary to his wimpy, sniveling nature, seeing a mean Billy Batson didn’t sit well with me.
When Billy gets to the multiethnic family of different ages, he doesn’t know what to think too hard about how to fit in. There’s Darla Dudley, Eugene Choi, Pedro Peña, plus versions of Marvel Family mainstays Freddy Freeman (albeit blonde, and not looking at all like the character Elvis Presley modeled his appearance after) and Mary Batson (though it’s unclear if Batson is her last name, though sketches in the back and hints in the story suggest she is indeed Billy’s twin as she has been in every version since the Golden Age). Not only that, Mary has a pet bunny named Hoppy (as in Hoppy the Marvel Bunny)! Although the new family seems to be a “PC rainbow of diversity,” each character in the family has a distinct personality and each seems like a child in foster care opposed to following some racial caricature just to be politically correct. The only thing close to being stereotypical is that Eugene Choi is a studious Asian kid who likes gadgets, but this plays into his character and pays off big time later. This new family impressed me. Mary is the first to give Billy the house rules, including the most important one of all: “We always have each other’s backs. No matter what.” Billy blows her off, or at least he seems to. At first Billy is very rude to his new foster siblings, and makes Darla cry.
Meanwhile, Sivana continues to hunt for the legendary Rock of Eternity and the magic within it to help his family. Thinking he has found true magic, he cracks open a doorway that gives him the ability to see magic. With this new magic vision, Sivana is able to successfully open the tomb of Black Adam, a previous magical champion of the wizard Shazam who was corrupted. Not only that, Sivana is now able to speak Black Adam’s magic language of Eternity, which spares him from being killed by Black Adam outright along with the rest of his research team. Black Adam learns English from Sivana, and the two set out to find the true Rock of Eternity.
The next day at Billy’s first day at school, Billy soon learns that Freddy Freeman is a trickster constantly providing test answers and fake doctor’s notes to his fellow students—though sometimes this comes at a price. The rich kid bully Bryer boys are angry at Freddy when his scams backfire on them, and want to take it out on him physically, even though Freddy is crippled and on crutches. Billy doesn’t stand for it and it’s here he starts to act like the Billy Batson we all know and love by fighting to protect Freddy, though he maintains his jerk exterior, claiming he just doesn’t like bullies. Later that night, Billy sneaks out of the house and visits a tiger named Mr. Tawny at the zoo, the same one he used to visit with his biological parents when they were alive (but are they dead? They may be missing. Either way, they’re no longer with Billy). Billy is feeding him, when Freddy, who has followed Billy to the zoo, surprises Billy and asks him what he’s doing. Billy is angry at Freddy at first, but becomes fast friends with him as the two decide to pay some revenge on Mr. Bryer, who earlier accosted their foster father. Attempting to pull a prank, they accidentally set Mr. Bryer’s SUV’s alarm system off and Billy pushes Freddy out of sight in the bushes while he leads the Bryer boys on a merry chase. This leads to a subway, where Billy gets away but only just. Then the subway transforms into something magical, and Billy is taken to the Wizard.
This time around, the old Wizard (it’s unclear if Shazam is actually his name this time; it seems to be more of the magic word) is an aboriginal medicine man looking character opposed to the white wizard in flowing robes of old—I was totally down with this change, along with the implied council of Thunder of which only the Wizard was left. As with every other candidate he has interviewed, the Wizard realizes there isn’t pure good in Billy Batson, but Billy is annoyed by this and tells the dying Wizard that pure good doesn’t exist in people, even when you try to be good. The Wizard is so exasperated by his lack of time and Billy’s disrespect, but is heartened by Billy’s claims that he has tried to be good, the Wizard checks to see if the spark of good is within Billy, and it is. The Wizard endows Billy with the power of Thunder and not with the powers of six mythological heroes, as in earlier versions of the hero. This was also a little disappointing to me, but unlike the other differences that bothered me, I didn’t even notice its absence until after I had finished reading the entire volume, and then realized the new mythos hadn’t suffered without it. Surprising, I know, but this story made me a believer, even in the other stuff that bothered me before—but more on the why of those things later…
At any rate, the Wizard tells Billy that he will have super strength, flight, the power of living lightning and the ability to cast many spells, but his greatest strength comes from his secret spell: sharing his powers with his family. Billy retorts by asking about his parents and is told “Family is not what it is, but what it can be” and this remains a theme for the book. The Wizard tells Billy to say the magic word, with meaning, to transform him, and Billy yells the magic word, and now his super hero namesake, “Shazam!” Billy is gone, and in his place is Shazam, wearing more of a wizard’s cloak than a cape, in a costume that is without the military-like aspects of his Captain Marvel costume, yet overwhelmingly familiar with yet another new touch: a v-line yellow border around the lightning bolt emblem on his chest, which seems alive with crackling energy. Just like about with everything else with this version, when I saw the hooded cape, I didn’t like it at first BUT it totally goes hand in hand with the new magic motif making both Shazam and Black Adam look more wizard like. Shazam’s boots also look really cool, and are very detailed but may be too ornate for some. After transforming, Billy is transported back to where Freddy is in the bushes, outside of the Bryer’s house. After convincing Freddy that the Shazam body is indeed Billy inside, the two begin a rampage of mischief, starting with trashing the Bryer’s SUV. This begins possibly one of the best parts of the book as Freddy and Billy bond, trying hard to take advantage of Billy’s new adult super powered body, by deciding to buy beer (they never get a chance) or learning Billy can fly.
Meanwhile, Black Adam makes it to the Rock of Eternity too late after the Wizard has died and given the power of Thunder to Billy. Adam decides to kill the new Champion of Thunder. Upon entering the Rock of Eternity, Sivana is overcome with magic, and his powerful body begins to wither. Black Adam tells Sivana he may be able to see magic but he could not endure such a dose of it without protection. So here after all, we’re on the way to get a withered crone Dr. Sivana, while simultaneously giving him reason to hate Shazam! Bravo Geoff Johns! With Sivana’s help, Black Adam decides to recruit the Seven Deadly Sins of Man, who have been living among the human population without any clue of their identity unknowingly having been brainwashed by the Wizard and his Council.
Freddy and Billy are having difficulty causing trouble as with every prank or crime they try to commit, and every luxury they try to indulge in, they run into a crime that Shazam soundly stops. Freddy gets Shazam to try to magic money out of an ATM, but not only does the money not stop flying out of the machine beyond Billy’s control, the pair arrive right in the middle of a bank robbery which Shazam thwarts easily. All the good deeds attract media attention, in which Billy hastily tells camera crews his name is “Uh…Shazam?” giving him his super hero name proper. This humorous course of events continues until Black Adam finds Billy as Shazam, and attacks. At first Billy doesn’t know what to think and fights back. But soon he finds himself on the losing end of a beating, and he quickly transforms back to a boy and runs to hide.
Sure enough, Billy’s foster family gets involved and tries to support and help their new brother. And from learning the origins of Black Adam to getting hints about the relationship between Billy and Mary, to the attack of the Seven Deadly Sins to ultimately the formation of an all new Marvel, er, COUGH, uh Shazam Family to take on Black Adam and the Sins, the final conclusion is thrilling, visually stunning and even moving. The action debut of Mary
Marvel, uh Shazam(?) is worth the price of admission alone. There are also allusions to two other long time Shazam villains, who will likely both make an appearance should DC continue the adventures of Shazam in an ongoing series, a rumor that has circulated in recent months…(and by gum, this is so good, they had better have more coming!) The story itself wraps up with the bad guys defeated…for now, and Billy a true part of his new family. He did have a heart all along after all!
And that’s the thing with The Curse of Shazam! There are so many misdirects that aren’t with the status quo that fanboys (like me) will throw up their arms in disgust (like I did—a little anyway; and you can see me throw my hands up even more in my very earliest initial impressions of this story in a previous blog entry) only to find things aren’t so different after all, and what is different, works, or is arguably even better. While some may say this is an unnecessary darkening of the character, or adding too much other magic stuff. The truth is, this story creates a great magic champion in the New 52 world of emerging super heroes and is a fantastic modernization of the character that yes, makes things more serious but keeps the lightheartedness that makes Captain Marvel/Shazam great. Not to mention, there are some great loose ends to pick up on here in an ongoing series or springboard into new stories. What’s wrong with Sivana’s family anyway? Who are they? This clearly isn’t the end of Black Adam is it? What’s next? Will we ever see other champions of other council members, at least in flashback? There’s one council member in particular who looks like Isis, for example… Will Billy ever learn better control of his magic and spells? Maybe getting some help from a veteran spell slinger from someone like Zatanna? Any other questions would be too spoiler laden, but there are a lot of jumping off points from stuff touched upon in The Curse of Shazam! If Billy does learn better magic ability, I’m sure we could see not only a sabertooth battle cat version of Mr. Tawny but the talking version too from the way Black Adam talks about Billy miscasting of the spell. And if Billy’s magic can affect Mr. Tawny, it totally opens the door for Hoppy to show up at some point! It’s not to hard to imagine that Darla could have an “Uncle” Dudley is it? There’s just so many new and old ideas to mine out of this great book!
While I started this entry shortly after the hardcover for The Curse of Shazam! came out back in September or October of 2013, I’m only finishing it in the first few days of 2014 and polishing it off in February. I’ve just written about Miracleman recently, a character who is very much based on Captain Marvel/Shazam. While Miracleman looks for scientific explanations for the superpowers and takes a grown up look at them, the Shazam of 2013 indulges in the magic, the wonder, and the joy of being a kid. Naturally, these have always been the principles for a good Shazam story, but few have captured the magic as well as the original Golden Age comics (seriously, go to www.comicbookplus.com and see for yourself! Then order The Shazam Archives Vols 1-4 from Super-Fly!). I think Geoff Johns and Gary Frank recapture a good chunk of that old magic. I hope it’s not the last we see of their Shazam and though I was hoping Geoff Johns would be doing a new SHAZAM series, it looks like Johns is going to be too busy writing Justice League and doing a Superman book with John Romita Jr. to do any more Shazam. Even without Johns’ writing, he’s set up groundwork with lots to grow on for someone else to carry on. I could really go for an ongoing series like this; not just as a Captain Marvel/Shazam fan, but as a comic book fan. So we’ll see! At any rate, Shazam Vol. 1: The Curse of Shazam! is definitely a must buy. Get the hardcover while you can, as they just solicited the trade paperback—but heck, maybe you were waiting for the TPB! Yeah, Shazam’s my favorite all time character, but this is the best re-imagining done to the mythos in years, and Billy, Mary, Freddy, they’re all there with some new friends to boot with the potential to see even more old friends…Hell, Super-Flyers, let’s not just wait for a Shazam! series, let’s DEMAND one!
That’s my two bits anyway… It definitely feels good to return to this blog entry after a couple months and wrap it up! Shazam Vol. 1: The Curse of Shazam! is really a great read. I’ve read it multiple times now, and it still elicits laughs and tears. Again, I’m a hardcore fan, but it’s a story that would make any comic reader a fan. Don’t miss it!